Don't Ask Me to Go and Play Football

"Dear Mother: I have written this to tell you my worrying secret. Now don't cry when you read it because it is neither yours nor my fault. I suppose I shall have to tell it now without any nonsense. To begin with I was not meant to be an athlete. I was meant to be a composer, and will be I'm sure. I'll ask you one more thing – don't ask me to try and forget this unpleasant thing and go and play football. Please – Sometimes I've been worrying about this so much that it makes me mad (not very). Love, Sam Barber II."

At the ripe old age of 9, Samuel Barber was apparently already very aware of his role in the world, as he expressed in this note to his mother. Indeed he seems to have had a very clear idea of his destiny from a very young age, taking his first steps in composition at the age of 7 and attempting his first opera at 10. This sense of self-assurance is something that can be observed across the composer’s career. Barber was, like many others, harshly criticised for writing music deemed traditional and old fashioned, and for never indulging in the fashionable experimentation of the first half of the 20th Century. However since his death in 1981 Barber has developed a reputation as one of America’s most talented composers.

1962 started with Decca Records famously rejected the Beatles, claiming that "guitar groups were on the way out" and that the Beatles had "no future in show business." Later that same year Ringo Starr joined the band and they released their first single Love Me Do, which would later reach number 1 in the USA. On the same day the single was released in the UK, James Bond made his first appearance on the big screen in Dr. No. West of the Atlantic, West Side Story won the Oscar for Best Picture, Andy Warhol opened his Campbell's Soup Can exhibit in Los Angeles, and James Brown was carving up the stage with his Mashed Potato dance. 1962 was also one of the high points of the Cold War, with the world on the brink of nuclear war as the Cuban Missile Crisis played out. New York opened the first part of the Lincoln Center, Philharmonic Hall, where Samuel Barber's Piano Concerto was given its premiere by John Browning.

Originally written in 1959 and published in 1962, Canzone was written for amateur German flautist Manfred Ibel, who became a good friend to Barber after his separation from partner Gian-Carlo Menotti. Barber and Ibel often played duets together, usually Bach sonatas, and whenever a challenging key signature intimidated Ibel, Barber would either transpose the piece into a friendlier key, or write it with accidentals instead of a key signature. To allow Ibel to play Canzone when he returned to Germany, Barber recorded a “music minus one” track of himself playing the piano accompaniment, and mailed it to Ibel as a Christmas present. Barber expanded the piece in 1962 to create the second movement of his Pulitzer Prize winning Piano Concerto, where the remorseful melody of the flute is dispersed throughout the orchestra. This melody is voiced several times throughout Canzone with various developments. The piece is unsettled in its tonality, building through many keys to the climax of the piece, before coming to a restless finish at the point where it began.

Samuel Barber, Samuel Osborne Barber II (1910- 1981), Canzone: Moderato, from the Piano Concerto, Op. 38, John Browning, piano, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin, condutor. Paintings by Charles Burchfield, Charles Ephraim Burchfield (1893- 1967).